The Apostle Paul tells us, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). If we were to seek an illustration of Paul’s great love text, it would indeed be Mary Magdalene. She drew the near the tomb on that first Easter morning, and I think love was all she had left. Her faith in Jesus and her hope in Jesus seem to have died with Jesus on the cross and with these two gone, only her love for Him and deep grief over Him remained. It was this love that drew her near and caused her to linger at the tomb as everyone else left and went back home. And yet, it was this grieving woman who received the twofold gift of being the first to see the resurrected Christ and the first to go and spread this joyous news. Such a surprising twist not only fanned her love for Christ into flame, it rekindled her faith and hope as well.
Whether you’ve come here today grieving or rejoicing, feeling hurt or feeling whole, it is my hope that your faith, hope, and love would be grown and enlarged as well. Let’s ask God to so move among us now.
We come now to John 20:11-18, the second scene on this First Easter morning, where Mary Magdalene in despair lingers in front of the empty tomb.
Mary’s Weeping (v10-11a)
Straight away we see a contrast between Peter and John and Mary. Back up to v10 and read through to 11a, “Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb…” We don’t really know how much time has passed since Peter and John left to return home, or if any of the other women still remained with Mary at this point. John simply tells us Mary remained behind at the tomb, weeping. Not weeping as in a quiet tear or two, no, the other occasions this word is used in Scripture is when someone is either deeply grieving and weeping aloud or rejoicing so much they weep joyfully and loudly.Mary is clearly experiencing the former as she lingers behind, deep in grief over the missing body of Jesus, gripped with anxiety about what had occurred, what was at that moment being done to the body of her Lord, lamenting as if her heart was broken. Here in this scene, is Mary not in herself something of a visible sermon? To see Mary unwilling to depart from the tomb, to see her refuse to leave and return to the others is abundantly instructive for us. Why wouldn’t she leave? Why wouldn’t she return? Why didn’t she go with or follow Peter and John back home? Perhaps, she was unwilling to leave the tomb for the same reason Joshua was long ago unwilling to depart from the tabernacle. Why did Joshua linger near the entrance of the tent? Because of one thing: he loved the Lord with all his might and desired nothing more than to be in His presence. Do you see then why Mary lingered here even in her discouragement? Because she loves Jesus, because she longed to see Him, and desired nothing more than to be back in His presence.
When discouragement comes to me for various reasons I often find myself reaching for the Life and Diary of Puritan missionary David Brainerd for encouragement. Brainerd was a young man who longed to spend himself and be spent in the presence and service of the Lord. Let me give you a taste of it. In the entry for Friday April 9, 1742 he lamented over his own soul saying, “No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I, and none abuse it more than I have done, and still do.” This is a man who knew his great need while also knowing God’s great supply. Later on in the year he gives another entry that displays a Mary like heart we see in our text. For November 4, 1742 he says, “God is unspeakably gracious to me continually. In times past, He has given me inexpressible sweetness in the performances of duty. Frequently my soul has enjoyed much of God; but has been ready to say, ‘Lord it is good to be here,’ and then indulge sloth while I have lived on the sweetness of my feelings. But of late, God has been pleased to keep my soul hungry almost continually, so that I have been filled with a kind of pleasing pain. When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of Him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable. And the Lord will not allow me to feel as though I were fully supplied and satisfied, but keeps me still reaching forward…I could not live without more of God…Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God…Oh, that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be slothful but animated by every cluster from Canaan to reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance! Oh, that I may never loiter in my heavenly journey!”
I see a similar desire, a similar longing, and a similar grief here in Mary staying behind to linger at the entrance of the tomb. Here is a woman who desired nothing more than to be with the Lord. Church, where are those in our own day who desire nothing more than to be with Jesus? Where are those who will forsake the world and all it offers to know Christ and the power of His resurrection? Where are those who will truly live this adventure called the Christian life rather than just giving it lip service while their hearts affections lies somewhere else? Church, where are those who’s supreme desire is to be in the presence of the Lord, communing with Him? When I first met Holly, her beauty ruined me for all other women. And now 11 years later it doesn’t take long in contemplating the woman she is to feel wonderfully ruined anew. May you see this woman, and be so struck by the Savior that you too are ruined for all other lesser pleasures!
John now transitions in v11b-15 from what Mary thought she knew about Jesus’ body to what Mary doesn’t know.
Mary’s Ignorance (v11b-15)
“…and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take him away.”
As Mary stoops to look inside the tomb she sees something Peter and John didn’t get to see, something that would’ve been quite a surprise. John tells us it isn’t grave cloths that grab her attentionbut two angels clothed in white were sitting, one where Jesus’ head should’ve been and one where His feet should’ve been. Some say here that seeing these two angels at either end of where Jesus’ body once was is meant to remind us of the two cherubim on top of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant.If that connection is meant by the angels positioning in the tomb it would have immense echoes of the atoning sacrifice performed and accepted by the Father, but it isn’t entirely clear if that’s in view or not. You do wonder whether or not she knew they were angels because she’s not afraid at all. We get no hint of fear in Mary she seems to still be at this moment as v11 portrays her, weeping in deep distress. The angels ask her “Woman, why are you weeping?” not to comfort her but to gently correct her misunderstanding. They know the only tears needed at this point are tears of joy, for this isn’t a tomb any longer! But it’s clear Mary hasn’t understood this yet. In her grief Mary manages to tell them the same thing she told Peter and John in v2, that she doesn’t know where the body of Jesus has been taken.
At this point notice we don’t have a response from the angels in v14. Why so? Did Mary immediately hear someone behind her and quickly turn around, not leaving them time to respond? Or did the angels rise up in honor of the risen Christ or simply point behind her to indicate the Person she’s missing is right there? We don’t know for sure. We do know that she sees Jesus, Jesus sees her, and He repeats the angels question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” v15 tells us Mary thought this was the Gardener, maybe perhaps because who else would’ve been in the garden at that time of day?Why didn’t she recognize Him though? Did her sorrow and despair blind her? I don’t believe so. Recall the men on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus, even as He was walking with them, talking with them, and opening the Scriptures to them, until He allowed them to recognize Him. It seems, then, Jesus hasn’t fully revealed Himself to Mary yet here by the tomb.
But little did she know how right she was. This was the Gardener. For He was the Gardener who made Eden where our first parents fell, He was the Gardener who brought life into death in the very garden they were standing in, and this is the Gardener who is right now preparing a new garden temple for His own, where they will dwell with Him and He will be their God forever and ever. Mary is too blinded by grief to see this and states her ignorance for the third time now in v15, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” She just says this, not explaining at all and not even stating who the ‘Him’ is in her question and just assumes this man knows who she is talking about. This is completely understandable. Those deeply grieving are usually very unlikely to give a thorough description or intricate details of events as they have unfolded and brought them to such grief. Have you ever felt like Mary? Experienced deep sorrow, so greatly, that you can’t seem to see what’s right in front of you? For me it’s often been these very moments when the night is darkest, that prepare the way for the brightest of dawns…and Mary is about to experience just that.
Mary’s Exhilaration (v16)
The wonder of these words I am about to read to you in v16 are loaded language, full to the brim and bursting forth in resurrection power! It is these words, or more specifically it is this one word, Jesus speaks to Mary that changes her life forever. We’ve seen Mary’s weeping and Mary’s ignorance, now behold in v16 Mary’s exhilaration. “Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to Him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).”
One word Jesus spoke, and to her it was the most perfect sermon she could’ve ever heard! One word, not just any old word but a word that carried a weighty personal significance, her own name. That Mary turns around after hearing her name indicates two things. First, that she had turned away to look back into the tomb after addressing the Man she supposed to be the gardener. And second, that she turned around at the sound of her name tells us there must have been something in the way Jesus said her name that drew her in and opened her eyes. What did she sense in hearing this? What was it about the way He spoke to her that opened her eyes? Be sure of this, it wasn’t anything in Mary that accomplished this, as if she was more tuned in or more spiritually sensitive than Peter and John. All she knew was grief and in that grief she seemed to be overcome. But when her name was spoken, my goodness, she knew it was Jesus. What happened here? Rather than giving time to speculation I would instead point you to John 10. There Jesus employs a metaphor to explain His unique relationship with His own people; the metaphor of a shepherd with his sheep. He begins this chapter by saying many thieves and robbers will try to break in and steal sheep out of His pen but they won’t succeed because Jesus says His sheep won’t hear the voice of strangers or listen to them or follow them. Who then will the sheep listen to? Only One, the Good Shepherd. John 10:3, “My sheep hear My voice, and I call them by name and lead them out.” Mary heard her name and immediately knew the voice. Perhaps thinking to herself upon hearing it, ‘That is no strangers voice. Here is One I know, here is One who knows me, here is One who has won my heart, here is One to Whom my allegiance belongs! I know Him now, because He first knew me.’ From such exhilaration her heart wasn’t content to remain contained within herself or to remain silent, no, pleasure in anything isn’t complete unless it is expressed as praise so naturally she bursts forth with her own words of proclamation, giving Him the praise He is due saying, “Rabboni!” or “Teacher!” which John kindly translates for his Gentile audience.
Do not think it strange that His voice can do this. It was His voice that spoke everything into existence from nothing. It was His voice that rang out to His people through the mouths of the Prophets. It was His voice, His very Word, that became flesh and dwelt among us. It was this Word who then performed wonders with just a word. And it’s now this very Word, incarnate and now risen, that calls out to Mary and overcomes her heart that’s overcome. Mary didn’t make herself ready to hear it, it was His voice and His voice alone that broke through the darkness and ushered her into the light. That spoke into her death and created life. That spoke into her lostness, found her, and drew her home to Him. Jesus turned this sufferers dark night to bright dawn with just one word. May you be encouraged in seeing this, as one poet of old put it, “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds you so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break, in blessings on your head.”
Mary’s Obedience (v17-18)
“Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that He had said these things to her.”
After seeing the exhilaration of v16, v17 can seem feel a bit like whiplash. It is, as one commentator put it, “One of the most difficult passages to understand in the whole of Scripture.”At first glance, according to our modern sensitivities, it can seem rude for Jesus to tell Mary to stop touching Him because He hasn’t ascended, when in a few verses He’ll tell Thomas to touch Him even though He still hasn’t ascended to the Father. What’s going on here? I think while Thomas is encouraged to touch Him due to His unbelief, Mary is discouraged from touching Him because of new spiritual realities. Follow me here. Mary, though rejoicing, doesn’t fully grasp what has happened to Jesus. Her grief had blinded her before and now her joy does the same. Jesus has risen, yes indeed, but Jesus will soon ascend to the Father and Mary, along with all other believers, will no longer grab hold of Christ physically with their hands but spiritually by faith. In this transitionary state before Jesus officially ascends to the Father Mary must transition away from the old way of relating to Jesus to the new way of relating to Jesus. She doesn’t need to cling to Him as if she’d lose Him again.This is why Jesus instructs her to stop clinging to Him physically, to prepare her for these new realities that have dawned, that she isn’t taking into account in her joy.
Instead of clinging to Him Jesus chooses her to be the first ambassador about to go out with resurrection tidings!So off she goes to the disciples, who Jesus now calls brothers, to tell them that she has seen the Lord, and that He is ascending to His Father and to their Father, to His God and to their God. This great commission she is glad to obey.
Church, how striking is it that on the morning of His victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil Jesus attends to the needs of this grieving woman? What a gift she received in this. It is fitting isn’t it? Eve was the first to take the fruit and eat in that garden, now Mary is the first to see the Risen Christ in this garden. Of all the things He could’ve been doing in this moment in His resurrection might, that He does this tells us much about Him and His care over all His sons and daughters. He is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18). As Mary was comforted and commissioned so too are we. Saved by this Risen Christ and sent by this Risen Christ with a message that He has overcome death and triumphed in behalf of all who believe in Him. May you hear His voice as well and take His good news to a world lost and dead in sin.
Richard D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2014) page 635.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 837, footnote 25.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 640.
Grant R. Osborne, John – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 460.
Morris, page 838.
William Cowper, Light Shining Out of Darkness, 1773.
Carson, page 641-642.
Phillips, page 639.
Carson, page 644-645. See also Osborne, page 463-464.
Osborne, page 464.